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Ron Martz: Coddled campus speech isn’t free

Recent events at Yale, Missouri contradict idea colleges should foster a diverse array of opinions

POSTED: November 15, 2015 1:00 a.m.
Sarah Bell /Missourian via AP

Concerned Student 1950, led by University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler, second from right, speaks following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign Monday, Nov. 9, in Columbia, Mo. Wolfe resigned Monday with the football team and others on campus in open revolt over his handling of racial tensions at the school.

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There is a certain irony of the timing of two events from the past week in which full front assaults were launched on the freedom of speech.

News of both came in a week in which we celebrated the 240th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps on Nov. 10 and honored all veterans Nov. 11, many of whom died to preserve that constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.

That these incidents occurred on college campuses is not surprising; college campuses have in recent years become places where students to a great degree are coddled and protected from any speech or actions with which they might disagree or which might offend them or their parents.

As I used to tell students when I was teaching at the university level, “If you’re easily offended, don’t take my classes, because I promote free expression of ideas and eventually I will challenge you intellectually in a way that you may find offensive. But if you get offended, that’s your problem; only you can allow yourself to be offended. And besides, I am offended by the fact that you are offended.”

The first of these two most recent incidents occurred at Yale University during, of all things, the “Fifth Annual Conference on the Future of Free Speech: Threats in Higher Education and Beyond.” The conference was designed to promote the idea that diversity in speech is good for intellectual growth just as racial diversity is good for social growth.

The students were having none of the former concept. Not only did students try to disrupt the forum, they reportedly spat on attendees, called them racists and even referred to minority participants as “traitors.”

The genesis of this was a pre-Halloween email to Yale students in which the Intercultural Affairs Committee warned against use of costumes that might be considered “offensive.” A university lecturer (who is also the wife of one of the school’s top officials) responded with an email that said essentially that offense is often in the mind of the perceiver and that her husband said that “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

A certain number of Yale students decided that the woman’s husband had to step down or be fired because they perceived him as being insensitive and offensive. Somehow that intruded on their belief that they have a right to go through four (or six or eight) years of school wrapped in a warm little cocoon of snuggly niceness, never hearing or seeing anything that might upset them, including ideas with which they might disagree.

Of course, that all emanates from our current culture created by overly protective helicopter parents in which everyone gets a participation trophy and a juice box and no one wins, no one loses, and they all live happily ever after in their gated communities far from life in the real world.

Perhaps the most egregious recent assault on freedom of speech came at the University of Missouri during a protest of — from as near as I can ascertain — the school’s handling or mishandling or matters related to race. While that is a subject for another time, the primary perpetrator of this effort to suppress information and free speech was, of all things, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication.

Anyone with a degree in or who teaches communication should be well-versed in the meaning and intent of that portion of the First Amendment that deals with free speech. This, unfortunately for the students at the University of Missouri, seems to have escaped Dr. Melissa Click, the aforementioned assistant professor of communication.

During last week’s on-campus protest by students seeking the ouster of the school’s president, the estimable Dr. Click was caught on video attempting to block student journalists who were trying to photograph and speak to protestors in a common area on the taxpayer-funded campus.

When one of the student reporters asked another student if she wanted to be interviewed, Click told the reporter he had to get out. When the reporter stood his ground, as was his right and duty as a journalist, Click turned to the crowd behind her and shouted: “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here. I need some muscle over here!”

For a private citizen or law enforcement official to do this would be bad enough. But for an assistant professor of communication to do it is anathema to all that she is supposed to be promoting, encouraging and teaching to her students.

To make matters worse, Click is also chair of the Student Publications Committee that includes oversight of the student newspaper “The Maneater,” a horribly sexist moniker if ever there was one, but we’ll let that slide for now.

A quick perusal of Click’s credentials reveals what may be the source of her apparent blissful ignorance about freedom of speech and the difference between public and private property: She’s never held a job outside academia. Her entire adult life has been as an academician surrounded and protected from the intrusion of life in the real world.

Yale and the Missouri are not the only schools where free speech has become an endangered right. There are any number of such examples nationwide. One other brief example is Southwest Minnesota University, which has in its Prohibited Code of Conduct this verbiage: “Any verbal or physical contact directed at an individual or group such as racial slurs, jokes, or other behaviors that demean or belittle a person’s race, color, gender preference, national origin, culture, history or disability, is prohibited.”

Exactly what that means is unclear. It is so broad that simply calling someone over the age of 30 “old” could be considered offensive and subject to university sanction.

What those who promulgate these dictums fail to acknowledge is that courts have ruled repeatedly that just because something is offensive does not mean it can be prohibited. In “Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri” in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the mere dissemination of ideas – no matter how offensive to good taste – on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’”

The famed author Salman Rushdie, who has had his own battles over free speech to the point where he has been under a death threat for more than two decades, on Nov. 10 spoke out about efforts on college campuses to impose censorship.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Rushdie likened students who protest being intellectually challenged on college campuses to those who carried out the deadly Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. And he derided the idea that universities are now creating “safe spaces” where ideas and beliefs are not to be challenged.

That, he said “is the opposite of what a university should be. It’s ideas that should be protected, the discussion of ideas that should be given a safe place. The university should be a safe space for the life of the mind.”

While not all colleges and universities are guilty of trying to quash rigorous intellectual debate and free discussion of ideas, the trend seems to be going in that direction out of a concern for the delicate psyches of the students.

If we go too far in that direction, we might as well just give everyone who enters college a degree and a juice box on the first day of classes and be done with higher education.

Ron Martz is a Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia and can be reached at rlmartz@hotmail.com. He is a regular Viewpoint contributor.



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